When we think about the story of Jonah, we usually think of one thing – a big fish. In all of our children’s Bibles, for example, the story is told through the lens of the fish. And even though Jonah’s story is short, in actuality, the fish only has three verses dedicated to it. There is much more to Jonah’s struggle with God than a whale’s gullet, but his three days and nights in that submarine gastronomic miracle focused the prophet. When we pay attention to the role of the fish in Jonah’s life, we learn quickly what it really is – the grace of God.
“And the LORD appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.” (1:17)
God did this to Jonah. It wasn’t a strange or lucky coincidence; it was a deliberate action on God’s behalf. God “appointed” -- or called, or arranged, or caused -- this fish to show up at this place at this time to have his prophet for breakfast. Jonah even sees this pitch-black stomach for what it is, “For you cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all your waves and your billows passed over me” (vs. 3). It was God’s doing, and Jonah is OK with that.
God put Jonah in the fish’s belly to get him back on the right track – to restore a right relationship between himself and his rebellious child. The fish was God’s means of getting hold of his prophet’s heart and mind again, and because it is Jonah’s way back to God, it is God’s grace. It is dark and dank and putrid, but it is God’s grace. It is odd and unique (Jonah must have uttered that common prayer, “Why me?” while sliding down the throat), but it is God’s grace. It is literally the darkest, deepest, and loneliest pit a human could be in, but it is God’s grace. It strips Jonah (literally and figuratively) of every earthly thing that distracts him from his God, but it is God’s grace.
Any act of God that is intended to bring me back to him is an act of grace and mercy. Even this is God’s love. When we think about receiving the goodness and grace of God, we normally think about, and certainly want, the nice stuff. We long for and seek for God’s niceness to us. And to be sure, there are seasons of life full of blessedness in our lives with God and with others. But there are other seasons when God does different kinds of things with his people.
When we look for the grace of God, are we ready for it to swallow us?
When it does, we can now turn to a formerly rebellious prophet who prays with the faithful who have travelled this path before him. We now learn from Jonah a positive lesson we have yet to learn – what it means to live with God in the darkest places in our lives.
“When my life was fainting away, I remembered the LORD, and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple....But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay. Salvation belongs to the LORD!” (vs. 7, 9)
When the darkness closes in and when our life faints away, we can now look to and pray with Jonah. “Lord, I thank you! I will sacrifice everything for you, and give you everything I am and everything I have. Salvation belongs to my Lord!”